Interpol and Europol extend facial recognition

The two police organisations are using new capabilities to search biometric images. Investigators can mark persons or things and match them with other files. At the G20 summit, the Hamburg state data protection commissioner criticised this procedure.

In the „INTERPOL 2020“ project, the international police organisation is expanding its facial recognition capabilities. After a test run, the Interpol General Secretariat in Lyon/France set up a new biometric database two years ago. According to information from the German Ministry of the Interior last October, the database contains more than 120,000 data records with photographs. The file can be searched with the „MorphoFace Investigate“ software, which has been used by Interpol for years to investigate child pornography.

The central offices of the member states are now to upload more pictures of „foreign fighters“ not known by name to the General Secretariat. There they can be compared with existing searches. For open investigations, Interpol also maintains its own analysis file „Foreign Terrorist Fighters“, in which the German Criminal Police Office (BKA) has been participating since September 2018. The photos of suspects contained therein are now also to be searched.

Europol develops its own system

Under the name „DTECH-Light“ Interpol had publicly reported the project for the first time in October at the annual meeting with the European Union. According to the report, the system should „detect, extract and analyse digital terrorist content, identify and locate suspects“. In addition, the organisation wants to create strategic reports from the operational data. After a pilot phase of two years, the platform could go into regular operation.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, the Interpol facial recognition database will also be supplied by „regional institutions“. These facilities are not mentioned in detail, but presumably Europol is one of them. Under the abbreviation „FACE“, the EU Police Agency has also been operating a self-developed facial recognition system since 2016. Among other things, it is used to search for pictures of suspects. Europol also receives biometric evidence from international military missions.

Uninvolved persons are also stored

The Europol software marks individuals or their belongings and compares them with other image and video files. The Hamburg police also use such a system for criminal prosecution after the G20 summit in Hamburg. Johannes Caspar, the state data protection officer there, ordered the deletion of the file in the autumn. Hamburg’s police is taking legal action against the order, and the dispute will now be decided in court.

Caspar justified his criticism with a „domination over images“ of uninvolved persons. This distinguishes the G20 file from „FACE“ at Europol, in which supposedly only accused persons, suspects or their contact person are stored. In contrast to „FACE“ at Europol, „DTECH-Light“ at Interpol will not only search its own databases. As the German Ministry of the Interior confirms, „the industry“ should also supply information.

„DTECH-Light“ also addresses „commercial OSINT“, according to the Ministry. With the term, among other things, social networks are meant, which are readable over interfaces and are integrated into other application. These platforms should „provide content for storage“ at Interpol. If Interpol were to process content from YouTube or Twitter, a number of uninvolved parties could be targeted, as at the G20 summit. Even if they are not stored in a file, the project is thus a case for the (unfortunately toothless) Data Protection Control Commission at Interpol.

Focus on the MENA region

The German BKA also wants to use face recognition at Interpol. The technical implementation is to begin after completion of the data protection review. The police and gendarmerie authorities from Germany, France, Israel, Spain, Great Britain and the USA are also networking in a „Facial Recognition Working Group“ at Interpol. It is to promote the use of the new file in the 194 Interpol member states and develop standards for facial images. The Group has developed a guide to the format and quality of facial images sent to Interpol. Expertise came from the US FBI.

Another objective of the „Facial Recognition Working Group“ is to expand international cooperation in the field of facial recognition. This applies to the countries of the so-called MENA region („Middle East & North Africa“), which are often not fully connected to Interpol. The governments in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia are now being supported by the European Union in the „Sharaka“ project. Ports, airports and land borders are to be connected to the Interpol network.

Image: All rights reserved MorphoFace Investigate (YouTube)

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.